The Modern World through the Luminous Path of Prose Fiction: Reading Graham Greene's A Burnt-Out Case and the Confidential Agent as Dystopian Novels

By Kehinde, Ayobami | Nebula, June 2009 | Go to article overview

The Modern World through the Luminous Path of Prose Fiction: Reading Graham Greene's A Burnt-Out Case and the Confidential Agent as Dystopian Novels


Kehinde, Ayobami, Nebula


What an absurd thing it was to expect happiness in a world so full of misery.... Point me out the happy man and I will point you out either egotisms, evil--or else an absolute ignorance (Graham Greene, The Heart of the Matter, 1948: 117)

Graham Greene was undoubtedly one of the most gifted and acclaimed novelists of the War/Post-war era in Britain. His novels reflect a constant search for new novelistic modes of expression capable of visualizing the disillusionment and malaise of the modern world. According to Waldo Clarke (1976), an enduring trait of Greene's fiction is the willingness to look at the repulsive face of the twentieth century. Since literature mostly reflects the mood of its age and enabling contexts, Greene's fiction dwells on the conflicts and pains of the modern world. The central burden of this discourse is to prove that Greene's novels steadily progressed in his bold use of the convention of dystopian fiction. It has been proved elsewhere that Greene's The Power and the Glory and The Heart of the Matter are quintessential existential dystopian novels (See: Ayo Kehinde, 2004). However, in this present paper, an attempt is made to study more closely the dystopian features and political and ideological implications of the deployment of this convention in Greene's The Confidential Agent and A Burnt-out Case. But first we must look closely at the concept of dystopian fiction and its role in fictional discourse.

Western imaginative literature took a decidedly dystopian turn in the twentieth century; this was with a view to reflecting the problems of the Western world in that century of wars and agonies. In fact, actual experiences of the modern world have been dystopian. This called for strong dystopian features in the literary texts produced in that period. According to Keith Booker (1995), "in many ways, dystopian fiction has become a paradigmatic expression of the Western imagination in the twentieth century" (58).

Dystopian fiction is a generic term for a work that is skeptical about ideal states and is fearful of totalitarian thought control. In such fictional work, the future is depicted as a nightmare world of state or corporate control and of dehumanized mechanization (Edward Quinn, 2006). In dystopian fiction, the novelist is always blunt; he or she uses the text to interrogate the idyllic posture of the pre-twentieth century utopianism. This is due to certain sad and unexpected events in the contemporary world--cold and violent wars; revolutions; totalitarianism, like Hitler's Germany and Stalin's Russia, and the like. In such a bleak world, the powerful are capable of destroying themselves and all of mankind; governments can also bend people to any kind of purpose. Barbara Foley (1993) sums up the features of the cosmos of a dystopian work in the following words: "oppositional confrontation between the desires of a presumably unique individual and demands of an oppressive society that insists on total obedience and conformity in its subjects" (21). Thus, the world of dystopian fiction offers a stifling threat to the freedom and integrity of the individual.

It is against the backdrop of the foregoing that the world of Greene's novels should be considered. Like most of Greene's novels, The Confidential Agent and A Burnout Case raise questions about the modern world, its predicaments and destination. Predictably, the image of humanity that the novels offer is negative. Nothing can better testify to Greene's talent than his artistic holding up of a fictional mirror to the existential pangs of the modern world; that is, his ingenious depiction of life under siege, a world bereft of fulfillment and joy. In fact, Greene's treatment of the dissonant and painful realities of humanity in the modern world is both remarkable and unique. His fiction shows a shift in the belief in Robert Browning's comforting refrain: "God's in his Heaven/All's right with the world!" (From: "Pippa's Passes", 1841). …

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